Montpellier exudes zest and energy. Its residents will proudly tell you this is a wonderfully youthful place. They’ll point out that more than half the population is less than 25 years old and the university contributes a very spirited buzz. Then they’ll add with a big, ironic smile that the city itself is young – “only” 10 centuries old.
Founded in the eighth century, Montpellier is indeed young when compared to other nearby settlements in southern France, such as Roman Arles, Nîmes and Béziers. And that’s a distinction it enjoys.
Today, Montpellier is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan centres in France. In the past few decades, striking new districts of bold architecture have been developed around its medieval interior. And the work is continues apace – this is a city on the move. Indeed, the very centre itself is moving, with a new city hall currently under construction in the Port Marianne neighbourhood, an area that will link the historic core with the newly developing districts. Dramatically set in a bed of water, the city hall has been designed by the renowned French architect Jean Nouvel – whose previous works include the remarkable Torre Agbar in Barcelona. It is scheduled to be completed in 2011.
You get a good view of the building, and the Port Marianne area, from the blue-line tram travelling east from the ancient centre. Trams were reintroduced to Montpellier in 2000, the first was such a success that a second opened in 2006 and is now known locally as the “flower-power line” on account of the retro flower design covering the carriages. A third line is currently being developed and is scheduled for completion in 2012. At 22.3km long, it will be the most extensive tram line in France – and it will be the most glamorous too, since the mastermind behind the new trams’ styling is Christian Lacroix.
The blue tram links the centre with two significant new neighbourhoods. Antigone, abutting the old town to the east, looks a bit like a Renaissance model city – only given a contemporary twist with an Olympic-sized pool and more. Designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, it gradually took shape between 1978 and 2000. Meanwhile, Odysseum, lying at the end of the tram line further east, is one of the newest of Montpellier’s districts. You feel as though you have strayed into Miami when you arrive at this bright entertainment and shopping complex, complete with palm trees, hi-tech lighting, piped music and the sculpted style of the buildings. The entertainment area opened four years ago and offers a host of activities for families, from a state-of-the-art aquarium to a planetarium and a large bowling alley. The adjoining shopping mall was grandly unveiled last September and contains a good dozen restaurants and more than 90 stores – including Apple, Tommy Hilfiger, Esprit and more.
But for all the new and newly emerging attractions in Montpellier, the city’s small old town, now largely car-free, remains a treat to explore. It is a pleasure to get lost in its maze of narrow lanes, which are lined with enticing little boutiques. And as you wander this absorbing area you realise that the spirit of enterprise is actually nothing new in Montpellier. The tiny streets of the old town may date back to medieval days, but they have been updated and gently amended over time and it is something of a treasure hunt to spot the details of different periods. Take, for example, one street: Grand Rue Jean Moulin. Look through the window of the fashion store Somewhere, at number 8, to see some original Gothic ceiling vaulting. Then pause by the facades of two lovely 17th-century townhouses at numbers 11 and 18. But most resonant of Montpellier’s resourceful spirit, is the grand Hôtel Saint-Côme at number 32, now housing the city’s chamber of commerce. It was built in the 1750s as an amphitheatre for the College of Surgeons, one of the first of its kind, with funds donated by the famous barber-surgeon François Gigot de Lapeyronie who was born in Montpellier and started practising as a surgeon at the age of 17.
Meanwhile, the city’s most celebrated bequest is the fabulous Musée Fabre, founded by Montpellier artist Francois-Xavier Fabre in 1825. Set on the eastern edge of the old town, it reopened in 2007 after a four-year period of renovation. Here you not only see Fabre’s own collection of Flemish, Dutch and French works, but also the considerable donations of others. A large group of later 19th-century paintings was given by the wealthy collector Alfred Bruyas, works by Delacroix, Courbet and more. Bruyas commissioned many portraits of himself and, as you wander through the collection, it becomes something of a game to spot him – even, in one painting, portrayed as Christ. More recently, the contemporary artist Pierre Soulages variously gave and lent 40 of his paintings, big bold works that play on colour, light and texture.
In February, another donation was unveiled by the Musée Fabre. Just down the road from the museum’s main building, the magnificent 19th-century Hôtel de Cabrières-Sabatier d’Espeyran has been transformed into a showcase of decorative arts. The first floor displays an amazing range of glittering décor from the 1800s, while the storey above contains wonderful collections of furniture and tapestries from the 18th-century onwards.
You can get a modern take on the decorative arts at another new venture nearby. Les Ateliers des Métiers d’Art are a collection of eight craftsmen’s workshops that also opened in February this year. During the afternoons you can watch potters, stained-glass makers, carpenters and more at work – and while you’re here you can’t help but tune in to the industrious flare of Montpellier.
TRAVEL ESSENTIALS: Montpellier
What to see
Musée Fabre, 39 Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (00 33 4 67 14 83 00; museefabre.fr). Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday 10am-6pm; Wednesday 1-9pm; Saturday 11-6pm. Adults €6.
Les Ateliers des Métiers d’Art, 53 Bonnes Nouvelles (00 33 6 09 54 21 58). Open every afternoon from Tuesday to Saturday.
More information about the other sights is available from the local tourist office (00 33 4 67 60 60 60; ot-montpellier.fr). You can also plan your stay and book it with the Montpellier Tourist Office’s online reservation service ( resamontpellier.com). Online bookings are also available for guided tours, city card and various leisure activities.
Where to eat
L’Insensé, Musée Fabre, 39 Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle (00 33 4 67 58 97 78; jardindessens.com). This offshoot of the Pourcel brother’s famous Jardin des Sens has a menu very much based on local produce. It offers lunchtime snacks as well as gourmet fare (closed Mondays and Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings).
Le Tamarillos, 2 Place du Marché aux Fleurs (00 33 4 67 60 06 00; tamarillos.biz). Chef Philippe Chapon creates strikingly pretty dishes based on fruits and flowers – langoustine served with strawberry juice, risotto garnished with pansies (open daily).
Where to stay
Baudon de Mauny Chambres d’Hôtes, 1 rue de la Carbonnerie (00 33 4 67 02 21 77; baudondemauny.com). A charming and beautifully presented boutique outfit in the heart of the old town. Doubles from €160 without breakfast.
Suite Hôtel, 45 Avenue du Pirée (00 33 4 67 20 57 57; suitehotel.com). With 139 bright and spacious suites, this modern hotel is a recent, modestly-priced addition to Montpellier and is conveniently located along the eastern edge of the Antigone district. Double rooms start from €95, including breakfast.
Hôtel du Palais, 3 Rue du Palais (00 33 4 67 60 47 38; hotel dupalais-montpellier.fr). Located in the old part of town, this pretty two-star guesthouse has 26 cosy rooms available. Doubles start from €72, without breakfast.